For advocates of civil rights, the buck looked as if it might stop at an accidental president named Harry Truman – and then return to sender.
There had been a discouraging line of Democratic disappointments in the White House through World War II, and some black voters thought the GOP might be a better option. After all, Truman came from a Show-Me state full of Confederate sympathizers (his mother was an "unreconstructed rebel"), hadn't shown tremendous interest in equality, and sounded like a jerk at best when he talked about blacks in private.
But Truman, no starry-eyed progressive, made a crucial decision that rocked the military and the nation. The story of his decision, and the decades of humiliation, heroism, and violence that preceded it, unfolds in the smart and insightful new book The Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America's Military.
In our own era, just a few weeks ago, a gun-rights advocate was roundly mocked for declaring that slaves wouldn't have been slaves if they had been armed. In fact, there was plenty of debate in the early days of the republic (and before) about whether blacks – including slaves – should carry guns. If they did, they could help win wars and protect communities. But what if they turned on their masters?
The Slaves' Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812, a new book by historian Gene Allen Smith, tracks the host of messy dilemmas involved in the question of arming slaves as he delves into a conflict which saw slaves actively recruited by both US and British forces. Many slaves viewed fighting as path to freedom – a gamble that paid off for some but certainly not for all.
While "The Slave's Gamble" is impressively researched, it intensely focuses on a short period of time and is written in a dry academic style. By contrast, "Double V" is an immensely readable book with plenty of modern relevance as today's American military considers who should be able to fight and how.
Bigotry and false hope mark "Double V," which begins with World War I. Back then, even a supposedly color-blind draft left African-Americans in the lurch when Southern communities conspired to make sure blacks got picked first. The reason? They wanted to get rid of them.
Filled with patriotism, despite their oppression here at home, black men fought overseas and were often heroic. The military paid them back by failing to promote them to officer status, placing many of them in menial positions, and ordering the French to not "spoil" black soldiers.
(The French thought that was bonkers and did no such thing. They referred to black soldiers as les enfants perdus, the lost children, because their army abandoned them. Other nations weren't so welcoming: During the early years of World War II, countries from Australia to Iceland objected to having black soldiers on their land.)
Blacks, according to many of the those in charge of the American military over the first half of the 20th century, were weak, "peculiarly qualified" for manual labor, and bad for morale if they mingled with whites.
For better and for worse, African-Americans didn't suffer their humiliation in some sort of saintly silence, although one Navy messman told a reporter that "you've got to know your place at all times." Black leaders and the black press eloquently and persistently pushed for equality. But in Houston during World War I, black soldiers murdered 15 whites in a massacre amid fury over policeman's vicious mistreatment of two blacks. "We are all human," wrote one African-American newspaper, reflecting a sense among some blacks that the killers had their reasons.
More than two decades passed before the next world war, and little changed. Franklin Roosevelt bathed in the support of black voters but, stuck with a racist and segregationist Democratic base in the South, he didn't do much for them. The war came, FDR died, and a Missouri senator moved into the White House.
Blacks didn't expect much. They got plenty.
James, the author, is especially fine when he describes Truman: The president "relished being underestimated. Humility came so naturally to him that it became a sort of cloak, a disguise in plain sight." It would fool his friends and his foes, including a military hell-bent on preserving the "Jim Crow" status quo.
At times, James – an excellent storyteller – doesn't go far enough into analysis. Readers may wonder more about the long-term impact of the Houston massacre and the personal reasons why Truman became a civil-rights trailblazer. How much did he evolve personally as he was horrified by violence against black veterans? How much did politics affect his decision?
Ultimately, Truman's decision to support desegregation would lead to dramatic change as blacks became officers, oversaw whites, and found more opportunities to become recognized as heroes. In a time of rampant oppression, the forced evolution became "an extraordinary demonstration of what was possible."
Today, we fight over gays and women in the military, and the debate sounds mighty familiar: Are they good enough to fight? Will their presence disrupt everything despite the military's emphasis on discipline? Should the military be on the vanguard of social change or pull up the rear? The words of a pro-segregation secretary of war under FDR about the Army – it "should not be used as a sociological laboratory" – sound positively contemporary.
And what about the risk of disrupting the military with major change during moments of crisis like a war? Why not wait for change until a time when things are quiet? (Never mind that it will never come.)
As James puts it, the military is "both a museum of who we were and a mirror of who we are." To that we can be always faithful.
Randy Dotinga is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.